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As Kansas City Council Considers Troubled American Jazz Museum, Director Will Leave

CJ Janovy
KCUR 89.3
The American Jazz Museum manages other city assets such as the Blue Room and the Gem Theater. That could change.

More than 50 people, including artists, musicians, former American Jazz Museum employees and volunteers packed a Kansas City Council committee meeting on Wednesday to voice their concerns or support for the troubled museum.

The council's finance and governance committee had a lot of ground to cover during the three-hour session. Earlier this month, a critical consultants’ report made more than two dozen recommendations to align the museum with industry standards, including the suggestion that the museum be temporarily closed to allow the organization to "save costs and focus on basic operating needs." Recommendations also included a reboot of board and staff leadership.

The outcome of Wednesday's meeting: Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner and 3rd District Councilman Jermaine Reed's competing proposals — Wagner's to withhold city funding for the museum and Reed's to give the museum more time — were merged into a committee substitute, and council members got clarity about changes ahead.  

Wagner said if the resolution passes the full city council on Thursday, the museum will continue to receive city funds this fiscal year. 

"So essentially $730,000 to clear the books," Wagner said. "But we will be expecting action to be taken by the board, as far as refreshing of staff, refreshing of the board of directors, to occur on or around the middle part of May." 

If that happens, said Wagner, then the city's contract with the museum will be renewed and subsidy payments will be provided.

"If those things don't occur," he said, "then we will step back and hold back that subsidy until such time as those changes are made." 

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Musicians, museum volunteers, past museum employees, and others shared thoughts on Wednesday about the future of the American Jazz Museum.

American Jazz Museum Board Chair Anita Maltbia said all but three members of the board would step down.

The museum board's annual meeting on May 15 was "both a natural stopping point and a natural starting point," she said.

"We intend to work diligently between now and then ... to keep the programming alive and well," Malbtia added.

Executive Director Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner announced that she was "not going to be the leader moving forward." However, she added, "I'm going to be a champion at every step of the way." 

"I have decided to leave the organization," Kositany-Buckner told KCUR after the meeting. "That was my own decision to be able to do that, to open the door for the museum to be successful and to grow to the future."

She said she was proud of several accomplishments at the museum over the last two years.

"We made missteps, but we made incredible progress ... this is not regret, and this is not a bad time, it's actually a good time for the museum."

Anthony Arnold, president of Kansas City Blues Society, echoed that sentiment during his public testimony. Aronold said there's a synergy right now in the 18th and Vine District.

"What hurts one, hurts us all. I think it would be a disservice to close the doors at all," Arnold said, noting the city's recent UNESCO designationas a "Creative City of Music."

"The world is watching," he said. "Not just Kansas City, not just the people on 18th and Vine — the world is watching now. We have to protect, preserve, this prestigious honor that Kansas City has been awarded."

Reed, who besides representing the city's 3rd Council District also serves on the museum board, said if the city focused only on the missteps it would "miss the larger picture of what is before us and that is protecting an institution that houses American jazz here in Kansas City." 

Reed said re-organization is necessary and that he would stay "laser-focused" on making sure that happens.

Wednesday's resolution also directs the city manager to identify an interim executive director for the museum.

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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